For the past few days, I’ve been living (in my imagination) at Alec Garland’s The Beach. The story is set in Thailand, with most of the action taking place at an idyllic hidden beach on an island where nobody is supposed to be. I felt truly resentful at having to leave this beautiful, beautiful destination when I finished the book.
The story is told by Richard, a young English backpacker who, along with many other young but seasoned travellers has become bored with the places where everybody goes. According to Richard, and his peers, the popular destinations on the backpacker’s trail have become too busy, overrun by people who are all desperately seeking unique experiences of their own. (Forgive me for my sarcasm, to hear these lucky, lucky characters moaning about these paradises being overrun by other tourists is just as irritating as having to pretend to be sympathetic with a workmate who returns from holidays and complains about having to come back, when the rest of you have been hard at work all along).
Anyway, the story starts with Richard on his first night in a backpacker’s hostel in Bangkok, Thailand, when a man in the next room suicides, leaving Richard with a map to a mysterious beach. Richard, along with a French couple staying in the same hostel decide to try to find this beach, which they hope is an almost mythical hotspot that everyone has heard of but nobody knows where it is.
According to Richard’s map, the beach is located on a protected island in a marine park. Richard and the French couple, Etienne and Francoise, hire a boat to take them to a neighbouring island where they set out to swim across to the island. They make the swim, which takes hours, then face a gruelling trek across the island. While crossing the island they bumble into fields of marijuana and after their initial joy and amazement, realise they need to hide from armed guards before they are killed. After escaping, they jump from the top of a massive waterfall into a pool before being collected by a group of young people who take them to the beach they have been searching for.
On first impressions, the beach community appear to be living in paradise. Some people spend a few hours fishing every day, while others grow vegetables or cook. Richard, Etienne and Francoise are generally welcomed into the beach community, although some members are concerned about the circumstances in which Richard obtained his map, not wanting the beach to become just another place on the backpacking/hippie trail.
Richard, Etienne and Francoise settle in at the beach happily, but gradually become aware of frictions between some of the personalities. When three of the fishermen are savaged by a shark one man dies, another is badly injured and a third loses his mind, their isolation exposes problems. The community are divided on whether to take the injured men back to mainstream civilisation to seek treatment or not. Around the same time as the shark attack another group of newcomers are spotted trying to use a raft to get to the island, and this time the beach community aren’t so welcoming to the newcomers as they were to Richard and his friends.
Throughout the story, Richard swings between living in his reality at the beach and in his head, which takes him through an imaginary barrage of Asian war stories, based on his movie and television exposure to Mash, Tour of Duty, Platoon and video games. By the end of the story, Richard’s constant companion is his imaginary friend, Mr Duck, the dead man who gave him the map to the island.
The only thing I found hard to believe about the story was that most people in the beach community appeared to be celibate. Richard was in love with Francoise, who was with Etienne, but otherwise there was very little suggestion of romance or sex. While the story didn’t need this angle, it did seem as if it were missing, unless this was because Richard was oblivious to other people’s relationships.
The Beach is an adventure story for the backpacking generation of today. The characters are kinder than those in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, possibly because the characters are adults and understand they need to work together regardless of personality differences if they are to make their community work.
This story kept me enthralled. The utopian community was a dream, until things fell apart. I desperately wanted to swim in the lagoon and live on the beach eating tropical fruits, fish and rice, swimming and playing football in the afternoons. *
* You are welcome to come to The Beach too, but please, bring a book or two with you to share as they don’t have a library yet.